TSG IntelBrief: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Changing Regional Outlook
March 12, 2014

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• The pullback of three Gulf state ambassadors from Qatar last week reflects stark differences in visions of broader regional policy
 
• Support versus disdain for reformist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood are at the heart of the current tension
 
• The Gulf Cooperation Council, like other associations of independent states, looks weakest when under pressure, but it may still be revived when current tensions die down
 
• However, GCC member states have individual expectations of the future and a relationship with Iran that are not necessarily in line with Saudi Arabia’s strategic vision.

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Against the background of events in Ukraine, Syria, and other areas of political instability around the world, the withdrawal of three Arab Gulf state ambassadors from another Arab country may seem of fairly minor significance. But the action taken on March 5 by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar, a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is a sign not just of a clash between neighbors, but between two fundamentally different visions of how the Arab world should develop.

In recent years, Qatar has had increasing influence in regional and world affairs. This has highlighted its periodic conflicts with Saudi Arabia, not just as a challenge to Saudi regional hegemony, but also because Qatar is supporting political trends viewed by Saudi Arabia as inimical to its interests.

There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia understands that, like any other country, it needs to develop to meet the new realities of the world around it and the changing aspirations of its people. Indeed, the present king has done much to move the country forward; but he has had to do so within the confines of a deeply conservative culture developed over generations, where hierarchy, precedent, and consensus are valued far more than innovation. Over recent years, as challenges to the slow pace of change have become more vocal within the kingdom and problems have begun to outpace the solutions prescribed for them, the Saudi government has had to devote more of its attention to matters of internal politics. While doing so, the last thing it has wanted to see in the background are the changes and challenges in the regional and global landscape that have made the future of the Arab world so much harder to predict.

While Saudi Arabia has tended to reach for traditional structures and existing mechanisms to control the pace of change, Qatar has adopted a more independent policy. At several points since the formation of the GCC in 1981, relations between Qatar and other members of the group have been strained by Qatar’s embrace of populist movements of change that frustrated and even angered a few Arab regimes. Since 1996, Al Jazeera, acting as an independent broadcaster to the Arab world from its base in Doha, has further exacerbated these differences in both opinion and approach, by providing a platform for views that were unprecedented for news outlets in the region. At the same time this has provided Qatar with a higher profile and greater influence.

Qatar “regretted” the decision of the three Gulf states, while asserting it will not pull its ambassadors from their countries. In the meantime, Qatar’s foreign minister recently reiterated that “the independence” of Qatar’s foreign policy is “simply non-negotiable.” In a recent example of its policy independence, as the diplomatic crisis was taking place in the Gulf, Qatari officials were intimately involved in complex negotiations that resulted in the safe repatriation of Syrian Greek Orthodox nuns held captive by Syrian rebels since September 2013. Doha is also finely attuned to the critical importance of its hosting US Central Command’s air operations for the Middle East and Central Asia, and how that would impact Washington’s discussions with Riyadh.

This might still have been more irritating than serious were it not for the growing popular demand for change that exploded with the Arab Awakening. Qatar saw an opportunity where many of its neighbors saw a threat, and Doha embarked on a course of support to reform movements in North Africa and subsequently in Syria, even with arms and other military assistance. Its continued to support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the ouster of President Mohammed Mursi was particularly egregious—and threatening to the status quo—and something Saudi Arabia found hard to accept. Irony has not been lost on the current Gulf rulers: it was Saudi Arabia in the first place that welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood at home and in the region as a bulwark against the Arab nationalist ideology of Nasser’s Egypt and the Baathist movements in Syria and Iraq. And that fate has come full circle with Riyadh’s now seeing the Brothers as a mortal threat akin to what most ails Damascus.

It is Qatar’s consistent foreign policy independence and its continued support for political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that has led to the current fracas. It is the lump of concrete that has broken the camel’s back, rather than an additional straw. The declaration of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia on March 7 shows the extent of the difference between the two countries. If Qatar sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a well organized regional movement that could take the Arab world in the direction of Turkey, where Prime Minister Erdogan to all intents and purposes follows Brotherhood policies of strict Islamic secularism, Saudi Arabia sees it as a direct challenge to the monarchical system that has kept Morocco, Jordan, and GCC free from the political turbulence all around them. Saudi Arabia may not believe it possible to put the genie of public opinion back inside the bottle, but it wants to do all that it can to restrict the influence of unsanctioned populist movements and the further uncontrolled encroachment of upstart opposition groups on the development of local politics.

The GCC, like any other associations of independent states, always looks weakest when under pressure, and it may still be revived when current tensions die down. But if its purpose, under Saudi leadership, is to unite the states on the Arab side of the Gulf in a political and economic union against Iran and other hostile influences, then it may be in terminal decline. Saudi Arabia has tried hard to build it into a more robust and deeper association, but Kuwait and Oman have held out against this just as much as Qatar. Only Bahrain—realpolitik applies—remains in lock step with Saudi Arabia. Many GCC member states have individual expectations of the future and a relationship with Iran that are not necessarily in line with Saudi Arabia’s strategic vision.

So as the world continues to turn and its problems appear to become ever more complex, the predictable election of General al-Sisi as President of Egypt and a further crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood both there and in Saudi Arabia are no more likely to prevent the processes of political change, slow the disintegration of GCC, or counter the growing influence of Iran than is the withdrawal of the three Ambassadors from Doha.

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• The GCC will find it increasingly difficult to form a unified foreign policy because of sovereign interests

• Kuwait will continue as broker and seek to patch fissures in the GCC structure.

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